Encounter with Hedwig Katzenberger

It comes naturally to her: as a gracious, erudite hostess, painter Hedwig Katzenberger generates the kind of philosophically charged ambiance which pervaded the salon culture of yesteryear. In the winter of 2015 she invited a group of academic acquaintances, with a common interest in the fine arts, to her spacious home in a village with spectacular Alpine views perched above the rivers Isar and Loisach. Hedwig Katzenberger’s aesthetic credentials are established forthwith. Our morning coffee is poured from a silver Art Deco pot, the Persian sugar bowl with its filigree enamel engravings, is a work of art in itself. For the ensuing two hours of free-ranging chat our hostess beckons us into her studio. A miscellany of subjects, mainly to do with art, is on the informal agenda. Hedwig Katzenberger, displaying uncontrived modesty, needs some cautious coaxing before discussing her own pieces lining the studio walls: just a fraction of all the paintings she has produced during the past decades. As a child, raised in the Lower Rhine town of Krefeld, she had always been keen on drawing but then embarked on an academic career spanning philosophy, psychology,  religious sciences and leading to a doctorate at Bonn University. Initially, she tells us, she worked as a hands-on psychologist. Her re-routing as an artist „was imperceptible and almost organic“.

Hallmark of the Katzenberger paintings that surround us is their inherent luminosity. The studio’s cumulative and yet covert radiance prompts the group’s Penguin author and journalist to mention D.H. Lawrence. Like other fine-art aficionados of his time Lawrence was fascinated by the „Blaue Reiter“ group of painters around Wassily Kandinsky in Murnau, a small town to the west of the Katzenberger abode, who progressed towards non-figurative art much in the same way as Hedwig Katzenberger was later to do. As a modern languages student at Nottingham University, Lawrence had fallen in love with his professor’s wife Frieda Weekes, née von Richthofen, a distant relative of the „Red Baron“ alias Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s ace pilot during the First World War. In 1913 Lawrence and Frieda headed for Upper Bavaria and from April to June ensconsed themselves in a villa just a few miles from where Hedwig Katzenberger now lives. Their hideaway belonged to one of Frieda’s relatives and offered the same stunning Alpine vistas as the Katzenberger villa. The couple experienced unrelenting rain. In one of his letters Lawrence wrote: „….the squirrels hang themselves up by their tails from the trees to dry.“ He describes the rainscape of the Alpine foothills some twenty miles to the south swiftly and magically „dissolving into all possible shades of merging colour“.

By now Hedwig Katzenberger is obviously enjoying her guests‘ lateral thinking and questioning and they, in turn, are enjoying her narrative. Her studies have enabled her to comprehend that the cardinal features of in particular the world’s mystic religions, with their emphasis on the all-encompassing nature of existence, dovetail to a wondrous degree with the findings of such leading lights in the field of quantum menchanics as Erwin Schrödinger and Hans-Peter Dürr. As regards subatomic particles for instance she has had „a feeling ever since my youth that everything that exists is somehow connected.“ Her father, an industrialist and inventor, once took her on a business trip to New York and „it was this awareness of mine that helped me cope with all that teeming humanity in Manhattan.“

So, yes of course, the magnificent Alpine masterpiece by consummate artist Mother Nature, which Lawrence viewed, could indeed, if scaled down, correspond with her own work as a painter. However, the precipitate fusion of light and colours achieved by Mother Nature all those years ago can only be emulated by Hedwig Katzenberger during long spells of undisturbed solitude here in her studio. Inspirational furnishings have been kept to a minimum. The studio’s salient feature is one of the former trusses of an African meeting house with jutting fertility breasts and a carved moon crescent. Whilst painting, the artist in domestic residence listens to an eclectic range of music: songs from the Romantic period rendered by the incomparable alto Kathleen Ferrier, baritones Dietrich Fischer-Diskau and London-based Dmitri Hvorostovsky, piano classics as well as improvisations by Glenn Gould, Keith Jarett and András Schiff, not forgetting contemporary compositions played by, inter al, violist Kim Kashkashian.

Though painting on canvas, Hedwig Katzenberger has adapted her former water-colouring method.  She applies up to thirty, „and sometimes more“, layers of acrylic paint so sparingly that, at the finish, to many a beholder, an  almost mystical underglow of light pervades a given painting. How this effect is rendered remains the secret of „the daughter of light“, as the late Karlheinz Deschner, literary critic and one of the greatest admirers of the Katzenberger oeuvre, called our hostess. That makes her a kindred spirit of William Turner whom she revers as „the master of light.“

Back in the 1980s Hedwig Katzenberger had been „impressed to say the least“ by Turner’s body of work in London’s Tate Gallery. To appreciate Turner’s skills as a „lighting conductor“ one need only log into YouTube where lesser artists nowadays replicate Turner’s method of stippling out white tempera with a sponge to, for instance, magically express the spread of light on the underbelly of a cloud. Hedwig Katzenberger is loath to go into her own technique at greater length. „There’s a likelihood of trivialisation“, she tells us. „Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, my method of painting is pretty unique and can’t really be imparted to anyone else. It needs to be embedded in a special mental framework. Otherwise, no disrespect intended, you could bracket my pictures with those of today’s light-effect engineers, say in a commercial for razors. But I’d already devised my own version of painted light by dint of a brush long before digital light artistry took off.“

What she can reveal is that the flow of her creative juices has to be calibrated with her emotional frame of mind. „Meaning is in the eye of the beholder“, she says. „I accept each individual take on my paintings. Some people are soothed by them, some see them as a transcendental entry point to a distant dimension, eternity perhaps, promising hope and serenity. And, what a compliment, there is even mention of their underlying ‚divine light‘.“ The artist points to one of the darkly luminous rectangles lining the walls of her studio: „That was painted just after I’d weathered a particularly nasty sequence of events. To lift my spirits I decided to create something beautiful, something with a hint of mother-of-pearl. When I’d finished, there it was: dark blue tinged with grey, green and black. Not at all what I’d set out to paint. My unconscious at a very deep level invariably takes over.“

After the death of her husband Klaus, a medical research doctor and author,  Hedwig Katzenberger painted „a series of pictures steeped in mourning, followed by a work of blended dark yellow hues with a centrepiece of lighter yellow rising vertically to give me a sense of consolation and resurrection.“ This seamless translucence is a leitmotif in every Katzenberger painting. Following the death of  Karlheinz Deschner it infused the shades of green and yellow with which the artist commemorated the latter’s love of nature. Hedwig Katzenberger maintains: „I’ve been blessed with much happiness in my life. The fact that I’ve never been grievously slighted by anyone probably shows in my paintings. But that’s not to say that I haven’t experienced illness, death and sorrow.“

Our hostess is a member of Munich’s prime association of artists, the „Secession“, whose founder members, at the end of the 19th century, broke away from the orthodoxy advocated by Bavaria’s prince-regent Luitpold and staunch traditionalists such as architect Franz von Lenbach. However, taking care of her husband, who was afflicted by Parkinson’s, meant that since the Nineties Katzenberger exhibitions have been few and far between and, compared to those of her colleagues, her later paintings remain largely unsung. Increasingly, Hedwig Katzenberger’s acolytes are urging her to approach not only galleries in German-speaking countries but in Britain and even further afield too. Art critics, who now have her on their radar, see her oeuvre, as regards form, in the tradition of Rupprecht Geiger, Gotthard Graubner, Mark Rothko, Reimer Jochims and Ad Reinhardt, and, as regards content, in continuation of the Romantic period’s paintings. Critic Angelika Burger probably comes closest to putting the Katzenberger genius in a nutshell: „….The layering of thinly spread, pigment-saturated coats of paint ensures that during the process of painting itself, light glints through as a force which disperses any vestige of darkness. In play with this central thrust, freshly applied colour retreats to the darkened edges of the painting. Colour of the highest intensity never borders directly on this whitish source of light; instead, light and delicate shades of colour merge seamlessly with those of greater intensity….“

Hedwig Katzenberger leaves the studio to supervise lunch in the making. Her guests agree that art à la Katzenberger is already beginning to grow on them. No wonder that Karlheinz Deschner waxes so rhapsodic in the essay she has left them to peruse: „It is obviously the painter’s avowed intent to portray diversity by dint of unity, sublimity and magic. If I’m repeating myself, it’s done on purpose. For she paints connections which are invisible to us and which she herself admits not to know. Her approach towards life  could be described as hylozoistic, based on the inkling that all living creatures possess a soul. Her comparative studies of religions have acquainted the trained psychologist Katzenberger with East Asian beliefs. Our human roots, she maintains, are manifold, the riddle of existence unfathomable and our own consciousness so very limited. In view of her oeuvre which, far removed from marketing and commercialisation, has grown and is still silently  thriving in almost a botanical sense of the word, it would be appropriate to quote Ad Reinhardt: ‚It must be known to be seen and seen to be known‘.“

Peter Hays